I started Cedar Falls Hops Co. in the spring of 2017 with my father, Rusty Leymaster, as my partner. We now have 7 acres of hops in production consisting of nearly 8,000 plants of five varieties. Our family farm consists of 350 acres and the decision to begin growing hops was based on my background in horticulture and my father’s experience as a farmer.
In 2017 my husband and I moved back to the family farm that I was raised on to start our own family and continue farming. Until this time I was living in Florida and working as a horticulturist for the previous 12 years. I decided that growing hops was a good use of my specialized skills in horticulture. It was at this time that my father retired from his non-farming business and we looked at this partnership as a great way to utilize my father’s 42-year background in farming and my talents.
We have been surprised to learn how difficult marketing hops is and how much effort is used on this part of our operation. For every hour spent in cultivation there is a matching hour spent in marketing efforts. This sentiment has been echoed many times by other growers we have spoken with and shows the need for this project.
Hops are a new and emerging crop in the Midwest, yet the marketing and sales of these has proven to be challenging for many farmers. Naively, many new growers start farming hops with the belief that if they can grow it then their local brewery will automatically purchase their harvest, only to find that the marketing is as challenging as the growing.
Being able to directly market hops to homebrewers will benefit growers, consumers and the community. Consumers will have access to a very fresh, high quality product that has unique flavors to the region in which it is grown. Farmers will be able to increase their profits and provide additional income to their communities.
This project will examine the best way to package, promote and market hops to consumers.
- Identify the best methods for marketing and packaging small quantity sales of hops (less than 3 pounds).
- Evaluate return on investment of various marketing efforts in increasing sales.
- Evaluate costs and profit of direct marketing of hops versus selling to a distributor.
- Share findings to other growers through field days, website and social media, as well as conference presentations.
To evaluate the effectiveness of marketing to homebrewers the different methods of trying to reach this audience will be tracked. While many farmers are good at growing crops, hops require a different type of marketing methodology because there are rarely standard farmer’s cooperatives (co-ops) to sell harvests to for an average price. To bring fresh eyes and a new perspective to this I will work with a marketing consultant to evaluate new channels to reach customers and find improvements on our existing marketing efforts.
In initial research for this proposal, it seems that the following main channels will be used and evaluated:
- Direct sales through farm website. This part of the project will focus on website optimization and search engine optimization.
- Social media presence. This will include Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
- Direct outreach through traditional in-person events. Specifically this will include the Des Moines Farmer’s Market, the IBEST brewer’s conference and Learn to Brew day events.
- Advertising in traditional print media outlets.
- Open house and field days.
All of these avenues seem to be reasonable ways for farmers to market their hops, however doing all of these will be a major undertaking. By running these simultaneously over one season we will be able to compare and see which methods are worth the effort and costs.
Educational & Outreach Activities
During the month of August several tours of Cedar Falls Hops Co. were led with the goals of introducing the professional brewing community, home brewing audience and the public to the growing field of Midwest grown hops.
Tours were given to four breweries with time taken to specifically discuss the qualities specific to hops grown in this region (i.e. terroir). Invitations were sent to more than twenty breweries via email in mid-July and followed up with later in the season as well.
An open house type of tour was held in partnership with a local brewery, SingleSpeed Brewing, to introduce hops as an agricultural crop to the public. This event was published in the local newspaper as well as promoted via social media. It was extremely well attended with more than 40 people spending their Saturday morning on our farm.
“Hop School” was held at SingleSpeed brewing as a classroom-type activity. Participants learned about the process of growing hops and then learned about how the final product was used in the brewing process.
Marketing hops continues to be a challenge. The challenges of creating an “online presence” are outside the skill set often presented for farming hops. These new skills of learning web design, e-commerce and shipping fulfillment are not insurmountable, but certainly need to be taken into account when marketing to a home-based audience is the goal.
The continued push to give presentations and reach out to the community helps to build our reputation but has yet to result in many sales. It will be interesting to see how the second year of the project proceeds and if some of these returns are delayed and will be forthcoming. The money spent on online marketing (search engine marketing) continues to have a very low return on investment. It is the people who hear our story and feel connected to our farm who are following through on purchases, and none of these folks have been brought in by an online ad.
I will look forward to the second year with a push on the Facebook and social media side and see how our sales are affected by these efforts and spending.
For the first part of the this project of this project we were able to complete the SEM (Search Engine Marketing) component that included choosing keywords and geographies to focus online advertisements. While we did see an uptick in website visitation, from 75 visits per month to 400 per month, these visits did not necessarily result in online sales. The online codes created to track these, as well as analytic features, showed that there is a very small return on investment in these funds. We are looking forward to the next component and focusing on social media to see if that has a higher return on investment.